Tech & Product Forum - The CTPO Debate

The CPTO debate is a lively one:

Even if one can manage both disciplines, the question of whether they should, splits the community.

At the most recent dinner of the Founders Keepers T&P Forum, our pan-European community of leading Tech and Product leaders, a table of stellar CTOs, CPOs, CPTOs and CTPOs unpacked the question we have been most consistently asked by founders, CEOs and investors alike over the past 18 months:

“What on Earth is a CPTO/CTPO and do I need one?”

This is a subject that baffles investors and CEOs as much as it does the talent themselves, with infinite definitions of roles, responsibilities and desired experiences meaning no two profiles look the same.

The root of the issue on CPTOs seems to focus on the “P”:

The pressure on Product orgs to deliver immediately is palpable. They aren’t granted the same time and patience that Tech teams are. We’ve failed to define what a CPO is or does.

- T&P Forum Member

In the absence of that clarity, unhelpful archetypes have emerged that only further confuse matters:

CPO became “Steve Jobs in a turtleneck”. That’s bullshit. You’re there to mechanically, methodically build the business, through R&D, testing, launching, iterating, forecasting and then delivering ROI.

- T&P Forum Member

This definition resonated strongly around the table, aligning with what we seek out in Founders Keepers Product talent - those unicorns able to tie together the secret sauce of the “what” of the business’s proposition, the “who” of the customer base who will pay to use it and “how” a company can commercially succeed accordingly.

In purely digital businesses, the “what” is almost impossible without a decent grasp of technology or, at the very least, the ability to interrogate and understand the work and motivations of a tech-minded counterpart. With tech being more tangible a qualification than product, we have tended to see more CTpOs than CPtOs, with tech leads consuming subordinate product teams.

Of course, the same can be equally true when inverted. Regardless of whether Tech or Product dominates, this org structure pivot has often been a red flag to executives, with one T&P Forum CPO capturing the mood succinctly when asked if he’d ever go to work under a CTPO:

Would you ever ask a badminton coach to train you for Wimbledon?

- T&P Forum Member

Assuming you can find an executive able to balance product insight and technical ability in equal measure, able to lead and inspire two complex and quite differentiated teams, there is also the inherent commercial skill - the “how” - to be sought out in the strongest CTPO/CPTOs.

One of our T&P members, a highly commercial, US-trained CTPO, is very clear on the necessary commercial acumen required in Product and Tech:

Product and Tech leaders exist to work out what the future revenue of the company is going to be. Last year’s P&L tells you how successfully you’re working that out.

- T&P Forum Member

So, to recap, so far, we’re looking for a deeply technical, product-minded, hyper-commercial executive, able to run a P&L, an engineering function, the entire product suite and have immediate executive presence, leading the most diverse headcount after the CEO. Simple.

This logic could (and clearly has) led some companies to conclude that the most vital “spikes” in CTPO profiles are purely on the tech and product execution side. An incredible anecdote shared by a T&P dinner participant posited an overriding attribute - communication.

Product and Tech teams often search for technical ability, where they should actually be looking for strong team and communication skills. We were retained by a high street bank to build their banking app. When I couldn’t find a team able or willing to build and engineer the product, I asked a string quartet I happened to know if they’d do it.

To this day, it’s the best Product and Tech team I’ve ever run, with the most positive feedback from the client – Product creation is about communication and teamwork more than any specific tech skills.
- T&P Forum Member

High EQ and strong communication skills are clearly fundamental to the success of a CPTO/CTPO. Beyond managing large, matrixed teams, more often than not - in Europe at least - these executives find they have to work to justify their own existence to peers in more clearly defined c-suite roles. This, of course, has always been the case, with the technical side of the board table having to translate complex “tech into exec”.

With all of the required experiences, skillsets and tenure listed above, it’s clear that CTPO/CPTO talent is rare. That’s obvious and, in truth, not the question we’re looking to answer. Should you try to find one for your business in the first place? If yes, how can you possibly hope to find one?

Of course, the answer is “it depends”, with T&P Forum members questioning the question more than answering it, predominantly with the fundamental “what are you trying to solve in this exec?”

Strong arguments can be made around the strengths and weaknesses of having two peers enabling each other's work:

For me, the Product leader decides what we make. The Technical leader creates the space for the specialists to fill gaps and solve problems.
- T&P Forum Member

Product leaders often can’t hold their own in tech conversations…Businesses would be simpler with a single CTPO, but you’d need to find a unicorn to pull two massive and opinionated functions together.
- T&P Network Member

Returning to our question:
“What on Earth is a CPTO/CTPO and do I need one?”

As always, there is no single answer. There are so many variables for each and every business to consider, it truly is a case by case org design decision.

Except it isn’t. In the dozens of conversations Founders Keepers have had on this matter with CEOs, CTOs, CPOs, investors and, fundamentally, the exceptionally small pool of true CTPOs/CPTOs, the one blocker that continues to limit this debate is that of a sheer lack of talent. Even if you did conclude you needed one, the chances of finding a CPTO/CTPO in Europe remain far too slim.

As concluded by one of the most accomplished CPTOs in the T&P community:

There is clearly a lack of CPTO/CTPO talent here in Europe – but only because we don’t ask people to do it enough!
- T&P Network Member

The key to unlocking the benefits of all-rounder Product and Tech executives could well be down to pushing more of our exciting CTOs and CPOs to take on more responsibility, providing the platform and support they need to both unify two clearly similar functions, overlay commercial acumen where it is current often lacking and, ultimately, strengthen the often strained bonds between the “tech side of the board table” and “the business”.

The FK T&P Forum exists to answer these questions and more. We will be posting more content on the major themes Europe’s leading Technology and Product executives are debating here and would love your thoughts.

If you’d like to be involved in any way, we’d love to hear from you.


Stephen Rosenthal and Hannah French are Partners at Founders Keepers and the facilitators of the FK Tech & Product Forum.

If you would like to join this Forum or learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact or